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Columns - Slant Pattern

Slant Pattern is a sports column by SC's Kevin Beane. Each edition of Slant Pattern takes a sidewards-glancing, humorous view of the world of sports with 20/20 hindsight and a blind stab at foresight. Appears every other Thursday.

The Demise of Jim O'Brien

By Kevin Beane
Friday, June 18th, 2004
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Let's start off with a hypothetical question.

Let's say you are the head basketball coach at a major university, and you're recreating a 7-3 kid from Serbia.

You know from reading the papers that Serbia is a war-torn, frighteningly impoverished country. You have the opportunity to help this big kid, and his family, to the tune of $6,000. Six thousand big ones would be manna from heaven to this family. Their life is no longer a living hell. They can eat. They can move farther away from the violence. The two things this family can count on in their lives is violence and hunger. But if you give them the $6K, you are in clear violation of NCAA rules, and you know it.

Do you do it?

Jim O'Brien, formerly the head basketball coach at Ohio State, did. Five years later, it comes out. O'Brien gets fired.

My first reaction to hearing this is O'Brien is he paid a high price for doing the right thing, the humanitarian thing.

In my judgment, I'd much rather err on the side of humanitarianism, which would put me firmly O'Brien's corner. Shame on Ohio State and the NCAA who would prevent those who can help a desperate family from doing so.

And yet, something didn't sit quite right with me all the same. Something about O'Brien's words to the press after being fired.

The comment O'Brien made that bugged me was, "I am advised that my firing is because I was asked to and tried to give assistance to a young man's family who was in dire financial straits. The assistance in no way influenced the young man in his decision to attend OSU, and, indeed, the young man did not enroll at OSU." (From ESPN.com)

"Indeed, the young man did not enroll at OSU." This strikes me as a weaselly cop-out by O'Brien. The only reason the player in question, Aleksandar Radejovic, didn't enroll at Ohio State was because, having signed a pro contract in Europe, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. He did sign a letter of intent to play at Ohio State. In fact, he was signed and sealed -- just not delivered, so for O'Brien to bolster his argument by pointing out the Radejovic didn't play for the Buckeyes is disingenuous, because for all intents and purposes, he did, or surely would have.

Secondly, it struck me like a ton of bricks that O'Brien's donation to the Radejovic family had nothing to do with his recruitment of him has to be a lie.

If O'Brien had no other reason to help Radejovic was out of the goodness of his own heart, then he (O'Brien) could've taken a very simple step that would allowed him to keep his job. He could've, rather than donating to Radejovic directly, given to a Serbian charity or relief fund, and helped a lot of families, not just Radejovic's. If O'Brien was only helping a family in need, why didn't he do it in a way that could help many, and allow him to be clear of NCAA bylaws?

The only feasible answer I can thing of is, he didn't want to. He did want to help Radejovic's family in particular, for one of two reasons:

Scenario 1: Because he wanted Radejovic to play for Ohio State (in short, O'Brien is lying). If that's the case, then Ohio State did the right thing in firing him.

Scenario 2: He took such a personal liking, basketball aside, to Radejovic and his family that he made the donation. If that's the case, O'Brien is making a judgment call -- the Radejovics are less worthy of starvation than other Serbian families he could help by donating to a charity -- that, I'm not comfortable with him making. Lots of Serbian families could use help, but not all of them have a 7-3 meal ticket in the family.

It stinks if O'Brien "picked" the Radejovic's over anyone else just as worthy and needful of assistance, but it would also be highly coincidental and extremely unlikely ... and why would he keep it a secret for five years, if he had the courage of his convictions? Thus, I believe the former scenario must be true, and now I'm saying "good riddance" to O'Brien.

Replacements are already being discussed, and three big names have been bandied about. One is Thad Matta, whose Xavier squad knocked off St. Joseph's after the Hawks had finished the regular season undefeated, won the Atlantic 10 tournament, and rolled all the way to the Elite 8. Matta would be an excellent pickup.

The other two rumored candidates are an intriguing contrast of styles and dispositions: North Carolina State head coach Herb Sendek and Texas Tech head coach Bobby Knight.

As an OSU alum myself, my reaction to Knight taking over the Buckeyes is similar to the mumblings you might make aloud in the midst of having a nightmare: Tossing back and forth going, "No. NO! NOOOOOOO!!!"

My beloved alma mater paired with the single person in college basketball, and maybe all of sports, that I loathe and despise the most. I don't want a head coach known as "the little general." I don't want a head coach that doesn't understand why it's wrong to choke his players. I don't want a head coach whose arrogance and temper are exactly that of a 2-year-old's.

Of course, Knight is the kind of guy everyone either loves or hates, and I detest him to the bitter bone. But, he's an OSU graduate and, as the ESPN article points out, there will be a large herd of (really stupid) alums clamoring for his hiring.

I realize that a lot of players respond to the drill sergeant approach of Knight, but his last several years at Indiana were mediocre, and at Texas Tech he has made a bad team fairly good, no more.

A lot of players (like me, if I played), don't respond to drill sergeant mode, but do respond better to the non-acidic, supportive, grandfatherly approach of Sendek, who, no kidding, is my favorite coach in basketball today. It's surreal. My very own alma mater is quite possibly pondering on whether to hire my favorite guy in college basketball, or my least favorite.

Sendek has done been quite a fighter at North Carolina State, fielding competitive teams in the most intensively competitive conference in the country. Playing in the shadows of Duke and UNC, he never quite allows his Wolfpack to fall off of anyone's radar. Quite a feat, considering the constant-pressure cooker he is under.

For Ohio State to score a coach from a rock-solid ACC program would be a huge reputation boost at a time the Buckeyes badly need one. You would be hard-pressed to find a profile of Sendek that doesn't deal at length with his sincerity and humility. Truly, he is the anti-Knight.


THONGCHAI JAIDEE WATCH: It was exciting to see Jaidee get invited to play in this Jack Nicklaus's Memorial tournament last week. Needless to say, I hoped for a big performance from Jaidee, giving him U.S. exposure, and all the sudden, I'm not the only member of the Thongchai Jaidee fan club. I was doubly excited when he played his first seven holes at three-under par, briefly tying him for third in the first-round.

Alas, it was all downhill from there. He didn't record another birdie the rest of the day or the next, and after a double-bogey-laden second-round, he missed the cut. His score for the two days was 71-79 on the par-72 course.

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